Dhaka Muslin & Indo – Bangladesh Venture

June 16, 2013 5:55 pm 811 comments __
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By G. K GHOSH

 

 

Since childhood I grew listening story of mystery fabric, Dhaka Muslin, without knowing much about it. My mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather spoke about it at great length, speaking about fineness but when I asked whether they actually saw it, they all remained silent saying the fabric is not being produced since the thumb of the weavers were chopped off  by the British long before they were born. Only when I was involved in the process of development of Muslin I could know how much wrong they were and what this fabric is. During my childhood a poem of Satyendra Nath Dutta on Muslin also attracted me. A paragraph of the poem ‘Charkhar gaan’ is quoted below:

“Charkhaye sampad. Charkhaye anna,

Banglar charkhaye, zhalkaye swarna,

Banglar muslin,

Bogdad, Rome, Chin,

Kanchane touliye, kinten ek deen.”

 

The term Dhaka Muslin does not mean it was produced only in Dhaka. The fabric is still known as Muslin but term Dhaka was added since most of the Muslin was produced in the geographical region under administrative region controlled by Dhaka. The fabric can e produced only under certain environment of high humidity and has to be near river. As reported it was produced apart from area around Dhaka, also in Nadia, Kusthia, Murshidabad, Madhubani region of Bihar and coastal Odisa. Actually Dhaka, now in Bangladesh and Masulipatnam in Andhra Pradesh were known to be home of exotic Muslin during Muslim period. Some scholars feel the term Muslin might have been derived from Masulipatnam. But during later study I observed though both were fine cotton fabrics, products of Masulipatnam and Bengal and around cannot be compared. Not only has that type of raw material, cotton varied but also the fineness. Muslin of Bengal was much finer having better shine than those of South but may be considered different product. Today the Southern cloths are known as Ponduru fine Khadi while the Eastern ones as Muslin. There are recorded history which says that the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt used Muslin to wrap the mummies and the Roman historian Pliny referred to Jhanna Muslins used by Roman ladies of high rank in the Imperial Rome. Muslin embroidered with gold or silver threads were known as Kasidah, which in Muslim history had the exotic name of Quitin-E-Rumi or Sammandar Lahar. There were many more varieties of Muslin during the Mogul period and these varieties were identified with exotic names. The variety known as Sarkar-E-Ala was used for turbans of the Mogul Emperors.

2 Imperial Rome also favored this fabric and imported this Muslin with gold and silver embroideries worth millions. The history of Dhaka Muslin is replete with such names as Kasidah, Qutun-E-Rumi, Nanbati, Yahudi, and Samandar Lahar. Even in the first decade of 20th century a Dhakai Muslin was sold (10 yards X 1 yard) known as Shabnam or morning dew was sold at Rs. 400/- or Rs. 40/- per yard.

Dhakai Muslin sold in London with 75% profit till 1883 AD. But it was still cheaper than the British made finer textiles. The East India Company, came as trader who first earned profit by trading finest Indian textiles, then became rulers of India finally killed Indian textile industry to protect the British textile industry by series of conspiracies finally with the ill reputed Calico Act. Simultaneously they introduced the British mill made threads in 1817 AD at one fourth price of Indian yarn. Muslin spinners failed to compete with this imported thread which was uniform in texture. Further the weavers who had to go round the villages for collecting Indian yarn, found it easier to obtain machine made thread. Finally Muslin spinning finally closed down.

It needs not to be elaborated in details about fineness of Muslin yarn produced in India. As Enclyopaedia Britannica (Vol.. VI pp. 549 to 560) reports:

“Although perhaps not so fine as legendary fabric a piece of muslin brought from India (to England) about the year1786 AD, proved conclusively that the hand workers of the country could produce a yarn and fabric of exquisite fineness. Comparing the yarn with modern standards the yarn number was 250 s ……….The length of one pound of 250 s yarn would be approximately 119 miles just to give an idea about it extreme fineness.”

But then its downfall was inevitable as desired by the rulers. It grew with Royal patronage during Muslim rule as described above both b the Mogul rulers as well as by the Nawabs of Murshidabad. When fabrics started flowing from England to India, all finer fabrics were branded as muslin to make them acceptable to market since muslin was popular fabric by then due to efficiency of Indian spinners and weavers. As Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. VI, pp 549 to 560) reports:

“Muslin of many kinds are now made in Europe and America and the name is applied to both plain and fancy cloths and to printed Calicos of right texture. ‘Swiss muslin’ is a light variety, woven in strips or figures, originally made in Switzerland. ‘Book muslin’ is made in Scotland from very fine yarn. Mulls, Jaconnets, Lenos, and other cloths exported to the east and elsewhere, are sometimes described as Muslins.”

 

3 Hence, the British rulers not only killed the ancient art but also could steal its name for marketing their product.

There are many legends connected with fineness of Dhaka Muslin. So the story of Emperor Aurangzeb chiding his daughter Zeb Unnissa for putting on Muslin garment believed to be a popular legend, but does not seem to be improbable. Princess Zeb Unnissa, it was stated came before her father being wrapped up seven times with a Muslin. Yet she looked so much openly dressed that the Emperor had to chide her for this. Two specimens of Dhaka Muslin were in the collection of the house of Jagath Seth’s of Murshidabad. Each of these pieces measuring 12 yards in length and nearly one yard in width, weighed only 70 oz (=204.12 grams). Yet these were not the finest specimens of Muslins produced in Bengal those days.

Textile industry of Bengal was in top when the British took over. This includes both silk and muslin. Lord Vercelest, Governor of Bengal who succeeded Lord Clive commented on the textile industry of Bengal as below:

“The farmer was easy, the artisan encouraged, the merchant enriched and the Prince satisfied.”

Muslins were largely made not only in Dhaka, but in various parts of India. Whence they were imported to England towards the end of 17th century. Some of these Muslins were very fine and costly; of which the specialties were Arni Muslin made in Madras Presidency and Dhakai Muslin of Bengal Presidency. The later one obviously was finer. It is reported that fine Muslin produced in and around Jagatsingpur and Kendrapada of Odisa was exported through Balasore port.

 

The Indian Muslin was purely an indigenously manufactured fabric and it was magical hands of spinners of India, mostly women, who produced extra fine yarn from cotton of long staple. The weavers also proved their talent by weaving such a fine Muslin of firm texture in their hand loom. However, it may be noted that production of such fine fabric was possible in highly humid environment, therefore production was possible close to rivers such as Dhaka, Murshidabad, Nabadweep etc., and limited to few months before, during and just after rainy season.

Legal restrictions, higher taxes and even physical tortures finally could kill this rich tradition to favor machine made coarser Lancashire fabrics. Yet the skill and tradition remained in the blood and gene of various artisans while fabrics up to limited extent perhaps continued to be produced secretly.

4 The tragedy of Indian Muslin was expressed wonderfully in a poem by Sarojini Naidu, patriot and poet of India. The poem is quoted below:

“Weavers weaving solemn and still,

Why do you weave in moonlight chill?

White as a feather and white as cloud,

We weave a dead man’s funeral shroud’. “

 

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India wrote about this wonderful Indian textile in his book “Glimpses of World History”.

“Four thousand year old mummies of Egypt were wrapped in fine Indian Muslin. The skill of Indian artisan was famous in the East as well as the West. Even when political downfall came, the artisan did not forget cunning of their hand. The English and other foreign merchants who came to India in quest of trade, came not to sell foreign goods here but to buy the fine and delicate articles made in India and to sell them at a profit in Europe. Thus the European trades were attracted first not by raw materials, but by manufactured wares of India. The East India Company carried on a very profitable business of selling Indian made linens and woolens, and silks and embroidered goods.”

The British Textile Industry grew at the cost of the Indian in a planned way. Even after the Industrial Revolution in England, the English modern Industry could not compete with Indian Muslin and had to be protected b an export duty of about 80%.

After independence Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expressed his desire to revive the art of India including Muslin, knowing well that he may not get cooperation from Pakistan. While India was free Bangladesh remained as colony except that its master changed from the British to more tyrants Pakistan.

Traditional textile industry was symbolically linked to India’s struggle for independence. While this status made it as target of the British, it also made duty of every citizen to help to revive. After independence as the main resistance vanished, the urge to revive became prime consideration. In the post independence period, the National Government realized importance of Khadi in National economy. To promote, the Government first formed All India Khadi & Village Industries Board and it was further

5 empowered by converting it into Khadi & Village Industries Commission. A study was conducted to know

the origin of finest fabrics produced in India which suffered set back. It was found that spinning and weaving of fine cotton existed in Bengal and around, Andhra Pradesh and Sothern Odisa and Manipur. The first category, finest of all was Muslin produced in Bangladesh, West Bengal, Northern Odisa, Madhubani region of Bihar and Barak valley of Assam. The second is known as Ponduru fine fabric was produced in Northern Andhra Pradesh and Sothern Odisa. This was known as Shalia in Odisa. The last category known as Inna Phee was produced around Loktak lake in Manipur. The third category has some similarity with the first.

First initiative for revival of this wonderful craft was taken by Dwaraka Nath Lele, member of All India Khadi and Village Industries Board. He entrusted this sacred duty to Kalicharan Sharma, well known Gandhian from Uttar Pradesh. He had intimate knowledge in textile operations.

Revival of this legendary textile was not easy task. Traditionally the finer yarn could be spun by drop spindle, known in India as Tuklee, by young women whose fingers need to be extremely soft. Therefore it was only possible for those women who normally stay home all the time. Women belonging to mostly Muslim community who stay home due to Purdah system and few Brahmin women used to spin this fines yarn. On the other hand weaving was done by the Hindu weaving or Tantubaya community. This was the phenomenon in all the places mentioned above. When the country was partitioned there was exodus of Brahmin women and weavers from Dhaka the place where bulk of Muslin of finest quality was produced. When plan for revival was planned apart from this problem Dhaka too was out of approach from those who planned to revive since administration of Pakistan was hostile to India and had no interest to help Bangladesh.

 

Kalicharan Sharma with Mission Mode cam to West Bengal and settled down initially in a weavers cluster in Baswa, in Birbhum district of West Bengal. But he failed miserably here. Then he migrated to another cluster in Nagarukhra in Nadia but here too he failed. Then he observed that it was because of low humid environment that he failed. He founded an organization known as Muslin Katai Mandal and migrated to Murshidabad on the bank of river Bhagirathi. He started spinning with drop spindle initially and adopted a spinner, Jyotsna Nath as his daughter. She was proved to be expert spinner. Next he modified a bamboo made Kishan charkha and started experimenting. Finally he succeeded spinning 250s yarn with Kishan charkha. It was an achievement worth mentioning.

6 Years back when Mahatma Gandhi was still alive, one Ekambar Nath Iyer, a textile mill worker of Coimbatore adopted modern Ring frame technology to develop a Charkha which was named after him as Amber Charkha. Initially it had two spindles Charkha and later it was developed into 6 spindle and now even 8 spindle. But it was all for coarse count cotton. Kalicharan Sharma started working on these implement and modified it to suit fine count Muslin by attaching right traveler. This gave further boost to program since it ensured higher earnings for the spinners.

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Kalicharan Sharma had two most devoted disciples One was Kamal Bhattachayaa and the other Nanda Kumar Chowdhury, both were true Gandhian and constructive workers. Kamal babu founded an organization, Nabadweep Kutir Shilpa Prathisthan in Nabadweep in Nadia district on the bank of Churni river, while Nanda babu already involved in an organization Chandrakanta Lalimohan Resham Khadi Samity where he introduced Muslin for the first time. I am proud to be close to these two great persons though never met Muslin guru, Kalicharan Sharma.

After death of Muslin guru, his disciple’s Kamal babu and Nanda babu continued with their effort to take Muslin to higher stage. Kamal babu was ably assisted by Chuni Lal Sarkar, who was though not literate had unique knowledge on new model amber charkha. He designed and fabricated 9 spindle Charkha reducing the load on spinners by using lighter metals such as aluminum. But unfortunately his implement never got recognition and after the death of Kamal babu he was ignored and suffering from economic crisis.

There are few problems faced while taking high count Muslin ahead. Raw material needed is cotton of long staple. Only cotton now being used is Suveen cotton that grows in Attur village in Selam district of Tamil Nadu. West Bengal gets this from that source. Since Textile mills do not need them this cotton do not have any commercial demand, therefore there is no scope for expansion. To produce Muslin above 300s, environment needs highly humid. In situation around Bengal we can produce such exclusive Muslin only during two to three months during and close to rainy season. Therefore total annual production under such situation will be too less. Kamal babu told me that he could increase days of production by spraying water on floor and walls of mud houses of weavers and spinners. The third most important problem was availability of traveler for charkha of higher count. Since the traveler of this count charkha has no market demand they are not availability readily.

I noticed another peculiar phenomenon. Considering humidity of environment is prime consideration of production of Muslin we planned expansion in humid areas like Kerala. But Kerala spinners failed to spin above 100s. This was noticed in many other regions too. We could only succeed in the region where

7 Muslin was produced during ancient days. In fact it was noticed a lady who migrated from Dhaka was better spinners. I think genetic factor also plays its role here too.

I personally felt with all these development, if Bangladesh is not part of the story, the story shall remain incomplete. During the period when I was looking after UNDP project in Khadi & Village Industries Commission, I proposed development of Muslin under aegis of UNDP with future provision to include

not only Madhubani in Bihar, coastal Odisa and Barak valley of Assam but also Bangladesh. But the project was never sanctioned. In the said project we made provision of common work shed with humidifier to ensure production round the year. For problem of traveler spare parts bank was proposed.

This was my dream project and through this forum I am proposing again. The Governments of Bangladesh and India must come together to come up with joint Muslin project with same provision as was proposed above. It struck me also that during ancient days when Dhaka Muslin was ruling global textile scene, from where did Dhaka used to get cotton of long staple? I was told by a cotton expert that there was four varieties of cotton of long staple were grown in both Bengal which was used for production of Muslin.

Presently it was noticed even cotton fabrics of 100s is being sold as Muslin in both the countries and above taking advantage of ignorance of the customers. This is serious problem because if we revive the art further we may face problem in the market with such spurious Muslin.

Under such circumstances I suggest the two friendly Governments, India and Bangladesh must come together for revival of Dhaka Muslin venture jointly covering following suggestions and actions together:

1…First step has to be to go for geographical registration of Dhaka Muslin covering Bangladesh, West Bengal, Madhubani, Jagatsingpur and Kendrapada and Barak valley of Assam. We may also include Tripura and Manipur.

2…Dhaka Muslin must e defined legally as cotton cloth above 250s only. Anything coarser than this cannot be Muslin.

 

8

3…We need to design common work shed with humidifier that can ensure right humidity for production of Muslin for ensuring year long production.

4…We need to involve cotton experts in our team who can identify and bring back those species of cotton grown locally to produce Dhaka Muslin during ancient days.

5…Development of technology that happened in two countries must be shared and best be adopted. For example we may take New Model Amber Charkha with higher productivity to Bangladesh to ensure better earning of spinners.

6…If productivity goes up this way, we need to search for market since average buying capacity of citizens in two countries is low. If we go global we need to have garments of better design. We may create a panel of globally known Bengali designers such as Bibi Rusel, Sbayasachi Mukherjee and Joy Mitra who will suggest right garments for global market. I am suggesting their name because they will gladly and sincerely help growth of Dhaka Muslin.

 

Let us bring the two Nations closer with Dhaka Muslin. Let us be proud again together like Rabindra Sangeeta and Nazrul Giti.

 

REFERENCE:

1…Muslin and Khadi Muslin

(Chandrakanta Lalitmohan Resham Khadi Samity, Khagra, Murshidabad).

2…Ghosh, G. K

And

Ghosh, Shukla…..’India Textiles’ [Past and present].

 

(G. K Ghosh: Born in the year 1948 in a well known Bengali family domiciled in Odisa.   Presented over 40 papers in Anthropology in Indian Science
Congress. Retired as Joint Chief Executive Officer of Khadi & Village
Industries Commission, an autonomous body of Government of India
serving rural poor. Authored over 50 books of various subjects. After
retirement he was made Chairman of a committee formed by Ministry of S
& T for three years.)

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